Tomorrow Is Too Long to Wait for Inclusion

The Biggest Barriers to Inclusive Education

 

Rainbow of Colored Pencils

Inclusive education does away with the practice of segregating students with learning and/or physical challenges from the rest of the student body. While the practice of inclusion places extra demands on students and facility logistics, there are numerous benefits to all students, both disabled and non-disabled.

Teachers in inclusive classrooms must incorporate a variety of teaching methods in order to best reach students of varying learning abilities. This has benefits even for those students who would be placed in a traditional classroom, as this increases their engagement in the learning process. Even gifted and accelerated learners benefit from an environment that stresses responsiveness from all students.

Perhaps most importantly, inclusive classrooms encourage open and frank dialogue about differences as well as a respect for those with different abilities, cultural backgrounds and needs.

Despite the benefits, there still are many barriers to the implementation of inclusive education. A UNESCO article, “Inclusive Education,” outlined many of them, including:

Attitudes: Societal norms often are the biggest barrier to inclusion. Old attitudes die hard, and many still resist the accommodation of students with disabilities and learning issues, as well as those from minority cultures. Prejudices against those with differences can lead to discrimination, which inhibits the educational process. The challenges of inclusive education might be blamed on the students’ challenges instead of the shortcomings of the educational system.

Physical Barriers: In some districts, students with physical disabilities are expected to attend schools that are inaccessible to them. In economically-deprived school systems, especially those in rural areas, dilapidated and poorly-cared-for buildings can restrict accessibility. Some of these facilities are not safe or healthy for any students. Many schools don’t have the facilities to properly accommodate students with special needs, and local governments lack either the funds or the resolve to provide financial help. Environmental barriers can include doors, passageways, stairs and ramps, and recreational areas. These can create a barrier for some students to simply enter the school building or classroom.

Curriculum: A rigid curriculum that does not allow for experimentation or the use of different teaching methods can be an enormous barrier to inclusion. Study plans that don’t recognize different styles of learning hinder the school experience for all students, even those not traditionally recognized as having physical or mental challenges.

Teachers: Teachers who are not trained or who are unwilling or unenthusiastic about working with differently-abled students are a drawback to successful inclusion. Training often falls short of real effectiveness, and instructors already straining under large workloads may resent the added duties of coming up with different approaches for the same lessons.

Language and communication: Many students are expected to learn while being taught in a language that is new and in some cases unfamiliar to them. This is obviously a significant barrier to successful learning. Too often, these students face discrimination and low expectations.

Socio-economic factors: Areas that are traditionally poor and those with higher-than-average unemployment rates tend to have schools that reflect that environment, such as run-down facilities, students who are unable to afford basic necessities and other barriers to the learning process. Violence, poor health services and other social factors make create barriers even for traditional learners, and these challenges make inclusion all but impossible.

Funding: Adequate funding is a necessity for inclusion and yet it is rare. Schools often lack adequate facilities, qualified and properly-trained teachers and other staff members, educational materials and general support. Sadly, lack of resources is pervasive throughout many educational systems.

Organization of the Education System: Centralized education systems are rarely conducive to positive change and initiative. Decisions come from the school system’s high-level authorities whose initiatives focus on employee compliance more than quality learning. The top levels of the organization may have little or no idea about the realities teachers face on a daily basis.

Policies as Barriers: Many policy makers don’t understand or believe in inclusive education, and these leaders can stonewall efforts to make school policies more inclusive. This can exclude whole groups of learners from the mainstream educational system, thereby preventing them from enjoying the same opportunities for education and employment afforded to traditional students.

Overcoming the many barriers to inclusive education will require additional funding, but even more importantly, it requires the change of old and outdated attitudes. Studies support what many classroom teachers know by experience: that the benefits inclusion provides to all students easily justifies the effort.

Photo Credit: Nicolas Buffler/Flickr

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Philip Murphy works at Bisk Education with the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and their department offering Online Teaching Degrees. You can read his tweets by checking out @burgseo.

Why Bother Giving Access To Curriculum For Students With Significant Disabilities?

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Why should we bother giving access to curriculum for students with the most significant disabilities?

I’ve spent 30+ years in the educational field working with students who have a label of significant intellectual disabilities. I have seen a number of practices and philosophies come and go in that time. What I have seen as a constant is that students rise to the level of expectation if given the opportunity.

There is a new emphasis on providing instruction for students that allows them to access to curriculum and the same standards as their grade level peers. Some argue that “these students” don’t NEED academic skills. Thirty years ago they told us ‘these students’ did not need to be in school. Yet our students rose to the level of expectation.

There is a focus in general education on differentiated instruction and active student participation as well as higher order thinking. I am not seeing the same strategies used as much by teachers of more significantly involved students. Many teachers argue that by focusing on academics we are not providing the life skills that students need as adults. Why do we think they are mutually exclusive? Why can’t we do both? I believe strongly that all students have the right to be exposed to the curriculum. Our job as teachers is to provide the materials and scaffolding they need to participate and progress. Isn’t that what special education means?

One of the arguments I often hear from teachers is “Why are we wasting our time teaching Romeo & Juliet when they need to learn basic life skills?” Don’t all students have the right to learn about the world around them and find their place in it? I have seen remarkable things happen once we started exposing our students to general education curriculum – better communication, interest in the world around them, more acceptance by peers, and participation in the general education program. In other words, becoming a full member of the educational community instead of someone in a totally different curriculum housed in an educational building.

The key is providing the curriculum in a meaningful way. This may mean it looks different. It means doing activities that involve the content of the curriculum in meaningful ways. It means not doing worksheets all day. It means allowing students to be involved with their peers.

The key to successfully adapting materials is starting with the skills the student has already. When I am working with a new teacher, the first thing I do is ask them to tell me about their students. They almost always begin by telling me about the deficits or what they cannot do. Until we change the thought process to what they CAN do, we can’t successfully support students. It is difficult to move forward with what the student CANNOT do. For example, the student cannot use his/her hands but they CAN track objects visually or turn toward sound. In this case we have to create materials that allow visual choices or provide auditory input to help the student participate.

The teacher has to approach every lesson thinking “What do I need to do to allow this student to participate and succeed?” Some simple strategies are providing manipulatives so the student has a concrete connection to the lesson, use photos or graphics with the words for non-readers, provide picture/symbol vocabulary sheet or communication board even for verbal communicators, provide tactile supports on materials, adapt written text for understanding and participation, pre-teach vocabulary and/or basic concepts and involve the family and other support systems. The most important strategy is expect success.

In working with many teachers over the years, I have found two common characteristics of teachers who are successful in working with students that have severe disabilities. The first characteristic is that they approach instruction with a positive mind set. “How do I make sure this happens?” instead of “They can’t do that.” I call this thinking outside the box. Our students don’t fit in the gen ed box neatly so our solutions will have to be found outside that box. The second characteristic is they do their job with joy and create a fun learning environment. If the student and teacher are having fun, then learning will definitely take place.

Photo Credit: Karen Pedersen-Bayus

What do you think? How should we approach teaching students with the most significant needs grade-level aligned curriculum? Tell us about it in the comments section below!

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